The resistable rise of Geert Wilders

There has been a great deal of media speculation about the prospect of a new centre party in the UK. Meanwhile in many countries in Europe, new insurgent parties have been spectacularly successful for example in Spain, France, Greece and Italy. We are publishing a series of blogs (on Fridays) describing the experience from other European countries with the view of collating experience  and identify how a new party might break into British politics, given the inherent barriers of the first past the post system. The fourth one, by Koen Vossen, looks at the emergence of the PVV in the Netherlands.[i]

For a long period of time, the most famous Dutch were painters, soccer-players and members of the royal family. The names of Dutch politicians used to be rather unknown as politics in the Netherlands seldom attracted attention of the outside world. But, since the turn of the century things seem to have changed.

A few Dutch politicians have acquired some fame outside the Netherlands, such as Pim Fortuyn, the political maverick who was assassinated in 2002, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a liberal Member of Parliament who became one of the most eloquent critics of islam in Europe and finally Geert Wilders, at the moment probably the most well-known Dutch politician.

Wilders’s fame is based on his remarkable ability to find the national and international spotlights with radical statements and sensational actions as well as on the spectacular rise of his party, the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom; PVV).

In 2006, the PVV made a relatively modest first appearance in the national elections (5.9% of the votes), after which the party peaked at the European elections in 2009 (17%) and the national elections in 2010 (15.5%).

After these last elections, a minority coalition of liberals and christian-democrats was formed, which was tolerated by the PVV in exchange for influence on the governmental policy, especially on immigration and asylum policy. This minority government stayed in power for 18 months after which Wilders decided to withdrew his support in protest of austerity measures being imposed on the Netherlands by the European Union.

In electoral terms, this proved to be a misjudgement as his party lost one-third of its electorate in the 2012 national elections. Moreover, his abrupt move has put his party back in isolation, distrusted by fairly all relevant political parties in the Netherlands. Still, however, the PVV seems to be on their way back, at least in the polls, which show a rather constant increase.

The founding of the PVV

The PVV is officially founded in February 2006, but its date of birth could also be placed somewhat earlier. In September 2004, Geert Wilders left the VVD, the conservative-liberal party which had been his political home since 1990. Between 1990 and 1998 Wilders had been an assistant for the parliamentary group of the VVD, at that moment the third party of the Netherlands.

In 1998, Wilders became a Member of Parliament. He soon earned a reputation as a fierce critic of the Dutch welfare state and the consultation system in social-economic affairs, but also as one of the first politicians who warned for the danger of Islamic terrorism and weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

Since his first visit to Israel and some of its Arab neighbours in 1981, Wilders was fascinated by the conflict in the Middle East. After 9/11, 2001 Wilders became an unjustly ignored whistle-blower, who was often invited in talkshows to talk on Islam. Though Wilders was a fierce supporter of American War on Terror and all accessory measures, his opinion on Islam was still rather moderate.

He distanced himself openly of Pim Fortuyn, a former professor of sociology who, in the autumn of 2001, attracted a lot of publicity with his fierce criticism on the Dutch-immigration policy and what he called the ‘Islamisation of our culture’. By attacking Islam because of its alleged ‘backwardness’, Fortuyn seemed to have found an essential ingredient which made it possible to be progressive and to criticise immigration and the multicultural society at the same time.

Nine days after Fortuyn was assassinated by an animal rights activist on 6 May 2002, his party attained 17 per cent of the vote and became the second-largest party in parliament. Especially, the VVD had lost a lot of votes to the LPF. As a result, Wilders was forced to leave parliament, which according to many accounts, must have been a traumatic experience for the passionate parliamentarian that Wilders had become.

When Wilders came back as a Member of Parliament, he began to present himself more and more as Fortuyn’s heir. He advocated all kinds of radical measures against those who (could) threaten Dutch security, which were inspired by American and Israeli examples (like declaring the state of emergency, preventive arrests, administrative detentions and the possible denaturalization).

In the beginning, Wilders considered such measures only suitable for real terrorists, but gradually he also included radical imams and even Moroccan criminals. Finally, Wilders began criticizing Islam as a whole and together with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, his fellow liberal MP,   he called for a ‘liberal Jihad’ against the advancing threat of political islam.

In the summer of 2004, Wilders’ position within the VVD became untenable and on, 1 September 2004, he left the parliamentary club but – due to the Dutch electoral law – he was able to hold on to his seat in parliament.

The ideology of the PVV

Initially, Wilders made plans to establish a neo-conservative party in the Netherlands. For that reason, he had made contact with Bart Jan Spruyt, chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation, a relatively new think tank which was devoted to spread the conservative ideology in a country that perceived itself as eminently progressive.

Relying on the polls, the neo-conservative program did not strike a chord and, in the summer of 2006, Wilders changed the course of the party. Together with Martin Bosma, a former journalist and an expert in (and fan of) American campaigning-strategies, Wilders succeeded in shaping a distinct political program and strategy which proved to be highly successful. The PVV-ideology is based on four pillars: islam-alarmism, nationalism, populism and law and order.

Almost all the viewpoints of the PVV are related to one of these pillars. For Wilders and Bosma, the first pillar, islam-alarmism, is probably the most important one. Islam-alarmism is based on an essentialist vision of Islam as a totalitarian ideology which is in time and space is absolute and invariable.

Islam is from its early beginnings aiming to conquer the whole world and the submission of all other religions. After that previous attempts to conquer Europe (in 732 and 1683) proved a failure, Islam has developed a new strategy for the islamification of Europe, that is immigration and intimidation. Various examples are perceived as evidence of this theory: terrorist attacks, Moroccan youth gangs, high number of unemployed muslims, increased homophobia and anti-semitism due to muslims.

But also those muslims who seem to have integrated in Dutch society are according to the PVV suspect.  According to the Islamic dogma Taqqia, muslims living in non-muslim-counties have the right to hide their true beliefs, Wilders said. Whereas he initially demanded strict assimilation, he now called for an almost complete marginalisation of muslims, who relying on the taqqia-doctrine are by definition untrustworthy.

Examples of this are his pleas for banning the Koran and closing all mosks and his proposal for a tax for headscarves, which he called a ‘headrag-tax’.

This fierce opposition to Islam is accompanied by an even strong dislike of the elite.  Wilders copied Fortuyn’s rhetorics against an alleged monopoly of Dutch politics and public opinion by a ‘church of the left wing’, a homogeneous and self-serving progressive caste, who refused to acknowledge the threat of Islam to the liberal and libertarian Dutch values.

Following Bat Ye’or’s infamous Eurabia theory Wilders has claimed that the immigration of muslims was permitted by left-wing political parties, who hoped to gain a new, loyal constituency after the loss of their old constituency. From 2006 onward, Wilders referred more often to this old constituency of the left-wing political parties, the ‘common people’, Henk and Ingrid, who are fed up with criminality, Islamisation and politics in general and who demand immediate deeds.

To make their voice louder, Wilders advocates a more direct democracy with referenda and direct elections of mayors, police commissioner and even judges. ‘Not the political elite, but the people should have the opportunity to express more often their will, because together the people know better as that left-wing clique’, the 2010 party programme reads.

The third pillar is a strong nationalism, that is more emphasis on the national interests and national values and an increasing dislike for supranational cooperation. Already in 2005, Wilders launched a successful no-campaign in the referendum on the proposed EU-treaty.

From 2010 on Wilders began to plea for a full Dutch exit out of the European Union and the Euro. The resistance to the EU was especialy based on the imposed solidarity with Greece and other southern countries but perhaps even more on the EU-regulations on immigration and asylum-policy, which made it difficult for the Netherlands to implement a strict immigration policy.

In the 2012 national election-campaign, the PVV focused on its opposition to the ‘superstate’ European Union with the slogan ‘Less Brussels, more Netherlands’. Switzerland and Norway now served as example of countries which were still masters of their own destiny. Other signs of a increasing nationalism were pleas for promoting national pride on schools (flag ceremonies, national history) and a rather optional proposal to integrate the Flemish part of Belgium in the Dutch nation.

Also the nationalist program has a strong nativist and welfare chauvinistic dimension. ´Our hard earned welfare state is a source of pride, but in the last decades it has become a magnet for lower educated immigrants,’ maintains the PVV in its 2010 election programme.

The PVV opposed the facilitation of  the laws relating to dismissal, the raise of the retirement age and cuts on minimumwages while advocating more investments in healthcare and facilities for the elderly.

The access to the welfare state should however be restricted to the Dutch and to immigrants who have worked and lived in the Netherlands for at least ten years and have assimilated (that is those who are able to speak Dutch, don’t wear a burqa and have no criminal record).

To be sure, Wilders also stuck to more harsh economy measures such as a cut down on expenses on development aid, culture and arts, public broadcasting service, environmental policy and the asylum and immigration policy.

Last but not least, Wilders and Bosma had worked out an extensive ‘law and order’ paragraph. Their measures appear to be inspired by robust American policies on crime, such as those by New York’s mayor Rudolfo Giuliani (‘zero tolerance, three strikes, you’re out’) and Arizona-sheriff Joe Arpaio (‘pink dressed criminals in a public chaingang’).

At the same time, the PVV opposes the death penalty and the right to bear arms and also is, especially from an American perspective, quite libertarian with regard to the right on abortion, embryo selection, euthanasia and gay-marriage. The party even offered a resolution in parliament to allow gay soldiers to wear their military outfit in the gay-parade.

This more libertarian aspect of the PVV-program has puzzled many observers in the Netherlands and abroad. How can a party that in most respects is almost a copy of national-populist parties such as Front National, Vlaams Belang, Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs or Lega Nord be such a fierce defender of women and gay emancipation?

The answer is that Wilders in this respect has followed Fortuyn who, as mentioned, combined progressive, libertarian viewpoints with criticism of Islam, which was perceived as a threat to Dutch modernity. But Wilders certainly has gone a few steps further as the more liberal-populist Fortuyn, as demonstrated by his proposals to ban the Koran, to close all mosques, to introduce a ‘head-rag tax’ and to restrict the welfare state to assimilated Dutch citizens.

In this process of radicalisation, Wilders eventually ended up in the nationalist-populist party family which he initially tried to avoid. In a sense, Wilders acknowledged this by eventually seeking contact with Marine Le Pen and the leaders of the Lega Nord and Vlaams Belang in 2013. The main goal of their rapprochement – to form a parliamentary group in European Parliament – eventually failed, but their alliance indicates that the PVV perceives itself now more and more as part of the European family of national-populist parties.


Looking at Wilders political career, one may see a clear radicalisation. From a conservative-liberal opponent of the welfare state, Wilders has developed into one of the most prominent national-populist politicians in Europe.

The question of course is what can explain this development. Is Wilders just a smart political entrepreneur looking for votes? Probably, Wilders and Bosma, both political professionals, were well aware that there were many votes to be gained with a programme that combined welfare chauvinism, euroscepsis, law and order and anti-immigration.

Still, sheer opportunism does not explain everything. The radical islam-alarmism is in electoral terms probably not very appealing and has moreover damaged the coalition potential of the party. This aspect is for Wilders however of crucial importance, as he has often repeated. It thus seems to be unsatisfactory to just perceive Wilders as an opportunistic demagogue, for whom only the polls count.

Two other aspects should be taken into account. First of all, Wilders is already more as ten years, living on a secret adress and he is living under a 24-hour police protection. This means that almost every step Wilders makes, also in his private life,  has to be planned because of the need of security measures.

His name ranks high on an Al Qaeda death list, on which Salman Rushdie and Charlie Hebdo’s Stéphane Charbonnier and the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard are included. The events in Paris in January 2015 have shown that these threats have to be taken very seriously.

Of course, it is difficult to prove that these constant death threats and the difficult living conditions that Wilders is facing, have caused the evident process of political radicalisation he has gone through since 2005-2006. Still, one does not have to be a professional psychologist to suspect that the permanent presence of bodyguards has done little to put his belief in the advancing threat of Islam into some perspective.

A second aspect which may explain this process of radicalising is the choice for a party-model without official members (besides Wilders himself). The relatively liberal legislation regarding party-organizations enables Wilders to hang on to this unusual party-model, although, by doing so, he misses out a substantial sum of public funding which in the Netherlands is only granted to parties with more than a thousand members.

So the party’s MPs and representives in the provincial an local councils as well as all the party-activists are technically no member of the PVV, but mere employees or volunteers, without official means to have a say in internal matters. The result of this unique party-model is first of all that the PVV is a relatively poor party. The election campaigns are, compared to those of most other parties, very modest and amateurish. In part, the PVV resorts to other, cheaper means of communication such as social media and various websites.

The most important channel of communication, however, is by means of the traditional media, the newspapers, magazines, television and radio-networks. Lacking the money to direct their own publicity campaign, the PVV almost completely relies on free publicity, which Wilders generates by his frequent provoking statements and actions.

The permanent need for media attention is therefore at the centre of most political activities of the PVV.  So in parliament, Wilders and his fellow-MP’s made particularly use of their oversight authority, while avoiding the less mediagenic and time consuming legislation procedures. So the PVV submitted a whole series of written and oral questions, resolutions and often called for emergency debates and interpellations.

Most resolutions did not stand a chance and were above all meant to provoke. Moreover,  the PVV used a language which was quite unusual in the serene and conciliatory parliamentary culture of the Netherlands. The PVV accused the government of straightforward lies and deceit and ministers of being ‘raving mad’, having a ‘spine of whipped cream’ whereas, young Moroccan criminals were continuously referred to as ‘street terrorists’ or ‘muslim-colonists’, political themes such as environment, culture and development aid were ‘left-wing hobbies’ and politicians who were too soft on Islam were named ‘political correct cowards’.

In parliament but also in the public debate on television and in newspapers, the language and the actions of the PVV resulted in fierce reactions and debates. The main beneficiary of these debates was of course the PVV, who managed to dominate Dutch media for another week.

But to continue attracting the attention of the media more radical statements have to be made, and more spectacular events have to be organised. It is only via the media that Wilders’ constituency receives any knowledge on the activities of the party. In other words, the memberless party-model has made the party to a large extent dependent on free publicity, which is again an incentive for radicalising.

In that sense, the PVV may be best perceives as a one-man band who is playing louder and louder to attract our attention. It remains an open question exactly how loud Wilders will play in the future.

-Art, D.& S.L. de Lange, Fortuyn versus Wilders. An Agency-Based Approach to Radical Right Party Building.’West European Politics 34, no. 6 (2011)

-Bosma, M., De schijnélite van de valse munters. Drees, extreem rechts, de sixties, nuttige idioten, Groep Wilders en ik. (Amsterdam 2010)

-Lucardie, P. & G. Voerman, ‘Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands: A Political Entrepreneur in the Polder’, Karsten Grabow & Florian Hartleb, Exposing the Demagogues. Right-Wing and National-Populist Parties in Europe. (Berlin 2013)

-Mudde, C., Populist radical-right parties in Europe (Cambridge 2007)

-Vossen, K. Rondom Wilders. Portret van de PVV (Amsterdam 2013)

-Wilders, G., Kies voor vrijheid. Een eerlijk antwoord ( 2005)

-Wilders, G., Marked for death .Islam’s War against the West and Me (New York 2012)

-Wilders, G., Marked for death .Islam’s War against the West and Me (New York 2012)

i] The direct quotes in this article come from: Koen Vossen, Rondom Wilders. Portret van de PVV (Amsterdam 2013)

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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